If a person experiences shoulder pain, rotator cuff exercises can help with pain management.
Why can’t some people sleep on one of their sides any longer or reach behind them? Chances are, the problem is a rotator cuff tear. It’s not just baseball pitchers who get this injury. In fact, anyone who has a hobby or job that requires reaching upward on a regular basis is at risk of a rotator cuff injury.
It’s also something that may develop as one ages or if there’s a family history. Sometimes just lifting something in an abrupt motion can do it.
Whatever the original cause, performing rotator cuff exercises can go a long way in getting rid of arm weakness and shoulder aches.
In this article:
- Rotator Cuff Exercises for Shoulder Pain
- 5 Tips to Speed Up the Healing of Your Rotator Cuff
- Don’t Do It Alone
Rotator Cuff Exercises for Shoulder Pain
1. Arm Pendulum
The arm pendulum is one of the ideal starting rotator cuff exercises for people in too much discomfort to lift extra weight. It works a broad range of upper back and shoulder muscles.
How to do it:
- Brace one hand on a sturdy flat surface. This should be the arm that doesn’t have a rotator cuff injury.
- The arm with the rotator cuff injury should hang down loosely, with the back at a 45-degree angle.
- Begin to swing the arm back and forth using shoulder muscles rather than momentum.
- Next, lift the arm out to the side and back down.
- Finally, lift the arm and do a series of circular motions.
- Do about 10 of each arm motion per set. Try to complete the second set.
- If desired, work both arms in order to maintain symmetrical strength in both shoulders.
2. Backward Stretch
The front of the shoulder gets a good stretching with this simple move. A long stick, a broomstick, or a rolled-lengthwise towel all serve as basic equipment.
How to do it:
- The stick goes horizontally behind the patient’s back with both hands grasping it once it’s in place.
- Then, the stick should be pulled to one side, using the arm with the rotator cuff injury.
- Pull to the point that the shoulder and arm feel stretched but not in pain.
- Hold for 30 seconds, relax for 30 seconds, then repeat four times.
- If desired, do both sides to maintain flexibility in both shoulders.
3. Crossover Stretch
Another good move in the beginner’s rotator cuff exercise series, this move works the posterior deltoid.
What is the posterior deltoid? Located on the back, it is one of the shoulder muscles. It lets a person bring his/her arms to the back.
How to do it:
- With shoulders relaxed, pull the arm with the injured shoulder across the chest.
- Use the other hand to hold the injured arm in place.
- Stretch the arm with the rotator cuff injury and hold this pose for about 30 seconds.
- Relax for 30 seconds, then do the move again. Do this four times.
- If desired, repeat with the uninjured arm to encourage symmetrical shoulder strength.
4. The Reverse Fly
The reverse fly works the rhomboid muscles. This group is found in the upper back and shoulders.
Along with the rhomboids, the middle trapezius and posterior deltoids also benefit from this move. All of these back and upper arm muscle groups support the rotator cuff joint.
How to do it:
- Hold a light free weight in each hand.
- Stand with legs spread so that shoulders and feet are lined up.
- Bend at the waist but keeping the back straight rather than arched. The back should be at a 45-degree angle.
- Let both arms hang down so the dumbbells are hanging around the knee level.
- Make sure to look ahead, not down. Avoid locking either knee.
- Now, move both arms outward until they are extended straight out on either side and are even with the shoulders.
- Lower arms to the original position.
- Make sure to actually lift rather than letting the momentum from swinging do the work.
- When done right, this move puts the strain on the back of the shoulders and upper back.
- Do 10 reps during each set. Work up to doing three sets of those 10 reps.
5. Hip External Rotation
This move, also known as side-lying external rotation, allows anyone with a rotator cuff injury to put weight on the uninjured side while strengthening the arm with the injured rotator cuff.
The exercise also works upper deltoids and the scapular muscle. A light hand weight is needed for this move.
How to do it:
- Prop up part-way, bending the uninjured arm to support the head.
- The upper arm with the injury should be lying along the uninjured side, which is now facing the ceiling.
- The upper arm, with the injured rotator cuff, is bent at the elbow, with the lower arm folded across the waist, weight resting near the floor.
- Now, rotate the upper arm, with the elbow still bent, so the dumbbell goes up and faces the ceiling.
- It’s easy to tell if the hand position is correct. The knuckles of the hand holding the weight should be parallel to the floor and ceiling rather than vertical.
- Keep the hand weight in this position for several seconds and then slowly rotate the arm again. Lower the weight toward the floor, but don’t rest the weight on the floor.
- Do 10 reps of this move for a total of three sets.
- If possible, repeat these three sets one or two more times during the day. As more strength is built along the rotator cuff muscles, do more reps during each set.
6. Standing Stretch with Doorway
Stretching rotator cuff muscles is important. It helps loosen up the entire shoulder area.
This is a crucial element in restoring the range of motion of a patient’s arms and shoulders during recovery from a rotator cuff injury.
How to do it:
- A hallway entrance or open doorway sets the wall at just the right distance on either side to support a deep shoulder stretch.
- Stretch both arms out at either side and stand centered in the doorway. Hands should be at about shoulder height.
- Lean forward slightly.
- Stop forward motion when the stretch is felt at the front of the shoulders.
- The weight should be centered at the balls and toes of both feet.
- Hold the position as long as possible until the shoulder strain becomes uncomfortable.
7. The “Lawnmower”
Lawnmower pulls originated with cable machines at the gym. But this upper back and shoulder strengthener can be modified for home using resistance bands.
How to do it:
- Put the resistance band under the foot that’s on the opposite side of the rotator cuff injury.
- Using the arm with the injured shoulder, grasp the other end of the resistance band in that hand. This puts the band at a diagonal angle.
- Bend the elbow of the arm holding the band and straighten the back to pull the cord upwards. This motion should be like yanking a lawnmower cord.
- Move slowly rather than in a jerky motion and concentrate on feeling a squeeze between the shoulder blades.
- Doing ten lawnmower pulls per set at three sets in total is a good goal to start with.
5 Tips to Speed Up the Healing of Your Rotator Cuff
1. Learn More About the Rotator Cuff
What is the rotator cuff? It is a group of muscles, such as supraspinatus or infraspinatus muscles, and tendons that connect the humerus bone to the socket of your shoulders.
The humerus, meanwhile, refers to the long bone of your upper arm. Its head forms part of the glenohumeral joint, which connects the upper part of the arm to the trunk.
With rotator cuffs, people can raise their arms and rotate them. They also provide stability for the ball-and-socket joint.
Why is this important for a person to know? Learning how to stretch the rotator cuff correctly is possible when they know which specific part of the shoulder is injured.
2. Be Gentle on Yourself
Rotator cuff exercises can do more harm than good in many scenarios. Take, for example, doing a lawnmower pulls workout right after a rotator cuff surgery.
A lawnmower pulls exercise is both effective for rotator cuff and efficient for the shoulders as it works many muscles simultaneously. The problem is it demands a lot of effort, especially since the injured has to use a rotator cuff exercises band.
It may only lead to delayed healing of the injured or painful joint. The patient may also complicate the condition.
It’s possible the physical therapist or the doctor would recommend doing a gentle movement first while the injured is still recovering from surgery. This may include performing a stretch for the rotator cuff injury.
Gradually, the person can add a rotator cuff exercise with increasing repetitions, sets, and movements.
The most important thing is to exercise patience. Progress is good, but it should never compromise health and safety.
3. Begin with Simple Rotator Cuff Exercises
Some of the rotator cuff exercises, like wall push-ups, can be complex, and doing them may be challenging. That’s okay.
Anyone always has the option to begin with the simplest exercises. For example, start with the stretching exercises without using any equipment like resistance bands.
A basic movement is shoulder flexion. From the starting position where the hands and arms are on the side, slowly raise them upward.
It’s simple, but it can exercise not only the rotator cuff but also the glenohumeral joint.
4. Avoid Further Injury
Another tip to boost the effectiveness of rotator cuff exercises is to avoid the common reasons for the pain.
The rotator cuffs and shoulders can hurt because of the following reasons:
- Rotator cuff tendonitis, which is the inflammation of the tendons
- Bursitis, which is the swelling of the bursa or the fluid-filled sac in between the spaces of the shoulders
- Complications of rotator cuff repair such as surgery
They may develop because of:
- Wear and tear due to aging, overuse, and misuse of the tendons and shoulder rotator cuff
- Shoulder impingement syndrome wherein the top of the shoulder called acromion rubs against the bursa and/or the rotator cuff
- Noncompliance to physical therapy plan or rehabilitation program
- Poor recovery after surgery
Athletes are not the only ones prone to rotator cuff tear. Anyone is.
All people can benefit from the abovementioned exercises for rotator cuff, but everyone should take the necessary precautions to prevent further injury.
5. Strengthen the Rotator Cuffs
Strengthening the rotator cuff will not only relieve the injured shoulders of soreness. It will also ensure the joints, tendons, and muscles remain flexible and strong.
Don’t Do It Alone
Not sure if the rotator cuff exercises are being done properly? Usually, a patient’s body will tell him or her.
Bad form results in the strain being felt in the wrong place. Rotator cuff exercises should be felt in the upper back and shoulders rather than the lower back or knees.
Try looking in the mirror during the moves. The back should not be arched or rounded.
Still not sure if the moves are working the way they should? Don’t be afraid to take the show on the road!
For a relatively small investment (which may even be covered by insurance), a physical therapist or an experienced trainer at the gym can provide additional guidance for coping with a rotator cuff injury.
Even more importantly, seek medical advice if there’s no improvement after a few weeks. Confirm that you should continue doing the rotator cuff exercises as the primary form of treatment.
Some patients with injured rotator cuff muscles may need steroid injections or even surgery. Often, however, alternating rotator cuff exercises with rest, icing, and anti-inflammatory OTC medication can do a world of good.
Keep on reading Dr. Seeds Health for more information about rotator cuff exercises, injuries, and healing. And if you have any other exercises or stretches for healing, leave them in the comments section below.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on September 4, 2018, and has been updated for consistency and relevancy.